Pusztai on Moses (27/7/2003)

When the UK Government's science review was published last week, the biotech-industry funded lobby group CropGen quickly press released its response.

This consisted almost entirely of a lengthy statement by Professor Vivian Moses, CropGen's Chairman and the author of such books and articles as "From cells to sales", "Entrepreneurial professors" and "Exploiting biotechnology".

In his statement Prof Moses noted that, "Some people are worried not so much about short-term health effects but what might happen in the distant future, perhaps thirty years ahead. They note the absence of extensive feeding trials on human subjects."

He went on to say that, "There is no way such a test could be run"

He listed 3 reasons for this:

1. it would be quite impossible to assemble the participants for the period and with the rigour required;
2. it would cost an unbelievable amount of money;
3. nobody would be remotely interested in developing products that required anything like such a degree of testing.

Moses also argued that for human testing to reach the rigour of animal testing, it should involve "killing batches of them along the way to see what might have happened internally" as well as the use of "inbred populations" that are genetically virtually identical (like identical twins), so eliminating the possibility that any variations are due to individual genetic idiosyncrasies.

While ruling out investigation of the longer term effects of GM foods, Moses claimed more acute effects were already fully investigated:

"animal tests have already shown no effects from GM foods approved for use in the UK.

"We can readily test for acute conditions: is the new food toxic, is it likely to provoke allergic responses and might it result in nutritional deficiencies? All these tests can be done in the laboratory using animals or with a relatively small number of human volunteers. Such tests are, indeed, routinely done as part of the approvals process."

This news will have come as a considerable surprise to many people, simply because it isn't true!

Here Dr Arpad Pusztai responds, with his usual playful courtesy and understatement, to the various claims made by Prof Moses.
Here is my response to Prof. Moses on the impossibility of safety and human testing.

Prof. Moses ought to know, as I personally explained it to him on a number of occasions, and he never objected to my arguments, that although we can never guarantee the 100% safety of anything, this should not be used as an excuse for doing nothing, which is the norm with GM foods.

We scientists could draw up a list of safety checks that could be the starting point for nutritional/toxicological testing of GM foods on a case-by-case basis.  In this the animal tests (after chemical analyses) would be a first step.  If the GM food would fail any of these tests on the lists, this food should not proceed any further in the approval process.  Those (and only those) which pass these tests could then be subjected to human clinical trials.  The length of the time that such tests may take should not be a point in the argument because there is no pressing nutritional need for producing these GM foods in the first place which only benefit the producers but not the consumers.

Similarly, the prohibitively high cost of these tests should not be a valid argument against the testing of GM foods because if the biotech companies want to sell their products to customers, they will have to bear the cost, no matter how high it is.

Now to the scientific points he raised:

  Prof. Moses knows perfectly well from his science past that the inbred status of the rats and mice used in laboratory tests is a must because otherwise the statistical significance of the experimenters' findings will never be established and the results would never pass peer-review and be published.  Without this (and in our case even with this) the pro-GM people would have a field-day of rubbishing the experiments which show any untoward effects on the animals.
  The most important point, however, is not that similar studies are impossible with humans because they are not inbred.  (Unfortunately even this may be possible in the future when the biotech industry will be able to persuade our politicians that they will have far less problems with obedient cloned humans).  The important point in advocating animal studies is that should any particular GM food fail the animal safety studies on the checklist its progress to the human stage of testing would be stopped.  In any case, when it comes to human health it would be totally unethical to use statistics.  Or should we say that we still want go on with the commercialization of a particular GM food if even one human subject out of a hundred developed symptoms indicating health damage?  Or for example, are we willing to play Russian roulette and pay the price for the genetherapy of SCID children when we find out that two of these children developed leukemia after the genetherapy treatment? Prof. Moses knows well that even animal studies are not foolproof as, for example, the tragedy of thalidomide had shown!  The rule ought to be, and it is one-way, non-reversible, if the animal tests indicate harm to the animals this is the end-of-the road for that GM foodstuff.

  We should also draw up safety checks for humans.  These would be non-invasive in the first instance.  For example, immune responsivenes (like the test we adapted from human hospital tests to rat studies) could be much more easily checked serially in humans than in animals by consecutive blood sampling of human subjects given GM food in comparison with those on the non-GM counterpart food.  Hormone assays could similarly be done to assess the metabolic status of GM-fed vs non-GM-fed individuals.  Bacterial status could be assessed from human faecal samples and so on.  I am sure, the medical fraternity could easily draw up such a checklist.  We are not looking for (I hope) acute poisonings with GM foods but the presence of metabolic disturbances just like in disease situations.

  We then could go on to more invasive human tests.  We could regard the Newcastle study as such an attempt and this could be broadened to look not only for transgene survival in the gut but also for tracing it to the blood stream and other body fluids.  Or to see by gastric biopsy-takings whether, similar to the pinpoint stomach erosive lesions observed in rats after dosing them with FLAVR-SAVR tomatoes, would such stomach lesions also be observed in humans when given other GM foodstuffs.  If there was funding available for drawing up such a checklist, I am sure, the medical people would be able to come up with recommendations.

  Then there is a possibility to monitor the health of comparable human populations in countries where the GM foods are still relatively few and those sold are strictly labelled.  Volunteers could always be found as in many other large scale nutritional studies (e.g. the Finnish carotene study, etc).  The only ethical requirement would be, as always, that when the interim evaluation of the study's results show harm, the study must be stopped.  
  I think Prof. Moses's third point is quite telling, i.e. that "nobody would be remotely interested in developing products that required anything like such a degree of testing".  Clearly, in a profit-driven industry consumer health is a secondary consideration.

Finally, I have to take strong issue with Prof. Moses' statement that "animal tests have already shown no effects from GM foods approved for use in the UK".  Obviously, to make such a statement Prof. Moses, just like Prof. David King's 24 (minus one) member science review committee, had to ignore our damning review of the pitifully small number of scientific papers published in peer-reviewed journals on the health effects of GM foodstuffs.

As a former scientist he ought to have known even if Prof. David King's committee members did not, that in the absence of a good numbers of papers in the peer-reviewed science literature it is impossible to form any scientific concensus about the potential health effects of GM foods particularly if those papers which have been published are of poor scientific standard and have come from biotech industry-sponsored labs.

 It is a grave travesty of the truth to say as in the second sentence of the CropGen response: "All these tests can be done in the laboratory using animals or with a relatively small number of human volunteers. SUCH TESTS ARE, INDEED, ROUTINELY DONE AS PART OF THE APPROVALS PROCESS". Within the bounds of civilised discussion I cannot comment on this because I do not want to be personal!

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